Screenings offer affordable, non-invasive means of early cancer detection
By MELANIE KILGORE-HILL
A West Florida startup is changing the future of cancer detection. Located in Myakka City, BioScentDX is harnessing the long-recognized scent skills of canines to offer earlier diagnosis of the most common cancers in the U.S.
A nose for detection
"Humans have long relied on dogs' extraordinary scent detection capabilities for a variety of tasks, from hunting to explosive and narcotic detection," said BioScentDX co-founder and lead researcher Heather Junqueira. "Through years of training and working extensively with these dogs and the medical community, we've learned to harness their ability to catch cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage." Junqueira spent nearly two decades in veterinary medicine and medical research while training medical alert dogs, primarily for diabetics. Following her father's death from a late-stage cancer diagnosis, she set out to learn about the possibility of using dogs for cancer detection. Turns out, she wasn't the first. Previous studies leveraging canines in the cancer detection space have yielded accuracy rates of up to 99 percent. Internationally, investigators have long been working to train dogs to detect tumor-based cancers. While researchers were eager to share their data, most efforts had fizzled out for lack of funding and an inability to carry out studies long term. Junqueira soon shared her findings with Florida entrepreneurs Mike Moore and Kyle Lawton, co-founders of Sarasota-based peerVue Inc. In 2012 the medical imaging workflow company was sold to industry leader McKesson, and the two quickly recognized potential in Junqueira's work. "This was such a unique undertaking, and ordinarily there would be multiple barriers to entry," said Lawton. "There are a lot of folks working in the vet space experienced on the dog training side, but coupling that with the unique demands of healthcare is completely different. We've managed to build a scalable business by navigating a very different avenue within the payer, provider and healthcare spaces."
Junqueiera now works alongside 26 beagles and basset hounds in BioScentDX's spacious training facility. The screening process is simple. Individuals order the $50 test from the company's website, and wear the mask while filling out paperwork. Minutes later, the breath test is complete and ready to be shipped back. Researchers insert the mask into a metal canister and present it to four general cancer-sniffing canines. If cancer is detected, the dogs sit. Junqueira repeats the test for confirmation, if needed, and presents positive samples to another group of dogs trained in specific tumor types: currently breast and lung, and soon to be expanded to include prostate, colorectal and melanoma. Results are mailed back to participants (and physicians, if requested) within 30 days.
While the process is far from traditional, results are grabbing the attention of providers and researchers alike. In 2017, the company partnered with the Lake Eerie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton to better understand the science behind scent-based cancer detection. "We wanted to work with BioScentDX to prove scientifically how the dogs are so effective, so we can start moving into the realm of evidence-based medicine," said LECOM professor Thomas Quinn, DO. "With the samples collected over the last year and the accuracy of the dogs we are seeing, we have moved considerably closer to that becoming a reality."
Saving money - and lives
The company is also partnering with self-pay employers to screen high-risk employees - typically smokers and those with a family or personal history of cancer. Moore said catching cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage saves payers upwards of $250,000 per patient. That's because those who aren't diagnosed till after symptoms develop are often late stage, requiring multiple hospitalizations, aggressive medical treatment and sometimes end of life care.
Early detection is particularly appealing in industries where cancer is prevalent: In November, the company announced a partnership with the California Professional Firefighters Association to offer screenings to the group's 17,000 members. Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters due to release of toxins and increased exposure time. In fact, data shows nearly 68 percent of firefighters will develop cancer in their lifetime. The good news? With survival rates above 90 percent for most cancers identified in stages 0 and 1, early detection is key to combating the disease.
Peace of mind for breast cancer patients
The company also is bringing earlier detection to breast cancer patients. In January, researchers were granted a one-year renewal from the Instructional Review Board for a first-of-its-kind human study to determine the efficacy of using canines' scent ability to detect breast cancer in women. In 2018, the IRB sanctioned the study to create a non-invasive test for breast cancer screening, setting a goal of 1,000 samples from women with a history of breast cancer, or at high risk of the disease. To date, BioScentDX has screened nearly half that number, with plans to double their goal in the coming year. That's an impressive feat, given the company's unique niche in the healthcare marketplace. "Trials involving canines fall into a gray area, because dogs are considered a diagnostic tool," Junqueira explained. "The process of doing medical research is extremely complicated, and the fact that we've been renewed shows that we've established enough credibility with our previous research that the IRB felt comfortable with us giving results back to patients. We help provide women with peace of mind when they can't afford a mammogram, or when they want additional screenings between yearly mammograms."
So what's next for the promising startup? Moore said the company is now partnering with imaging groups as they work to better understand the science behind canine scent detection. "We're in discussions with radiologists who were understandably a bit cynical of our outcomes at first glance," he said. "Now they're on board, and we're looking at ways to help them capture new markets (i.e. the uninsured) they may not be able to reach otherwise. They're also using our dogs to examine subjective images for false positives and negatives. This could offer another data point to assist in the decision to order an invasive biopsy."